Peru has long been the prime destination for backpackers. Its geographic diversity, rich culture, low cost and, of course, the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu make it an almost obligatory trip. Peru is very popular with first-time visitors to South America—much like Thailand in South-East Asia—and you are guaranteed to find many backpackers travelling similar routes in the south.
Such popularity does have its flip-side: you may find just a tad too many souvenir shops lining the streets, and Peru’s icons (alpacas, pan flutes, etc.) are at times almost cartoonishly overrepresented. Due to its constant flow of fresh-off-the-plane tourists, the country is also known for scams and petty crime targeting foreigners, so it’s a good idea to keep your guard up a little.
That said, these are minor blemishes on what is otherwise the perfect budget destination in South America. You can’t really go wrong with backpacking in Peru, and any self-respecting world traveller should surely go there at least once.
Why you should visit Peru
- Densely packed with attractions. While Peru is a big country, most of its attractions are concentrated in the south. This means you can keep a relatively tight circuit. Even a 2 week trip can include the Nasca lines, trekking and seeing condors around Arequipa, Machu Picchu and lake Titicaca (the highest lake in the world). That’s a lot of highlights for one trip.
- Some of the best food in South America. While not necessarily the most famous internationally, I’d argue that the Peruvian cuisine is certainly amongst the world’s most delicious. The country has some interesting drinks as well—it’s home to the Pisco Sour cocktail, and the wacky ubiquitous bubblegum-tasting soft drink of Inca Kola.
- Rich cultural heritage. The country is rich with history, whether it’s Peru’s pre-colombian archeological sites, its baroque churches and other colonial architecture, or the mysterious Nasca lines dating back all the way to the 1st century.
- Machu Picchu. These ancient Inca ruins have an almost mythical appeal. For many it ends up being one of those peak travel experiences, though this can be quite dependent on your circumstances (for instance, weather conditions can play a huge part, and the site is many times more majestic at sunrise when it’s still completely quiet). For tips on visiting Machu Picchu, look further down the page.
Aww, baby alpaca!
Peru itinerary advice
Peru is popular with both short-term and long-term travellers. I myself have visited Peru twice; once on a 2-week trip, and later again as part of a much larger journey through South America.
Consider 2 weeks the bare minimum for Peru. If two weeks is all the time you have, you should probably forget about the central or nothern regions and focus solely on the south. You will be able to cover the areas around Arequipa, Ica, Cusco and lake Titicana reasonably well. Keep in mind that having only two weeks means having to keep the pace up and probably having to take nightbuses to make it all fit. Consider taking an internal flight to save you time: for instance, fly between Cusco and Lima as this saves you an uncomfortable 30 hour (!) bus ride.
Most of the tourist destinations are in the south. For Huaraz, Iquitos or Mancora you’ll have to go much further north—up from Lima—though these parts of Peru are much less visited.
Don’t overstretch yourself. I made this mistake during my first time in Peru: I tried to ‘see it all’ and as such had a very hectic holiday and didn’t get to spend that much time in charming cities like Arequipa and Cusco. Keep your itinerary from fragmenting too much and try to spend at least 2 or 3 nights in some places. It’s a shame to only see places superficially, and much better to narrow down your choices. For backpacker travellers, I would say Arequipa+Colca Canyon and Cusco+Machu Pichhu are most likely to form the backbone of your itinerary, with Huacachina another fun stop along the way; other places, even though they are great, could be candidates for elimination if truly pressed for time.
If you have more than 2 weeks your options really start to open up. For example, with 3 weeks you can either focus on the south and take it slow (this would probably be my recommendation) or try to add some other parts of Peru as well. With four weeks or more to spare, you can comfortably cover much or all of Peru.
While most of the tourist highlights are in the south of Peru, the rest of the country has much to offer as well. Going to the central highlands or the north as well will add some geographic and climate diversity to your itinerary. The south is largely desert / Andes / rocks, while the north has lush green Amazon forests as well as tropical beaches. You also have a better chance of having more authentic experiences in these less-touristy regions.
Unless you really have the time, resist overreaching into Bolivia. I met a lot of backpackers who exhausted themselves just trying to ‘do’ Peru and Bolivia in the same short trip. Looking at a map it may seem tempting to make a beeline for La Paz and see the salt flats of Uyuni while you are at it, but I’d say that Peru has plenty of big highlights for one trip already. I’d probably recommend adding Bolivia only if you have at least 3 weeks.
Finally, you can limit your time in Lima. While this is where international flights arrive, Lima is not really the highlight of Peru if you ask me. It’s noisy, big and can be a little dangerous in certain neighborhoods. There also isn’t that much to see there, and its microclimate on the coast ensures it’s constantly covered in clouds (it’s a bit like San Francisco in the US, but seemingly worse).
The historical centre of Lima: worth exploring a day or two.
That said, travellers who have been to Lima seem to fall into two categories: either they stayed for a couple of days at most and thought it wasn’t that great, or they stayed for much longer (e.g. for volunteering), got to know some locals, and came to love it. If you don’t have that luxury, consider staying only a day or two and then moving on. Arequipa is a better city to stay for a while if your time is limited.
Backpacker hostels in Lima are dispersed among many separate neighborhoods. The historical center is close to museums and churches, but it’s also pretty loud and stressful here. Miraflores on the coast has the reputation of being the most affluent and safe area, but I personally thought it was a tad too sterile; it’s very ‘Starbucksy’ and has lots of high-rise buildings. South of Miraflores is Barranco, and this is the neighborhood I most recommend. It has cutecoloured low-rise buildings, a chilled out bohemian atmosphere, and some great restaurants with outdoor seating. It’s nice to stay in Barranco and then just take taxis to the centre for sightseeing.
The coastline in Lima. For good beaches, you have to go much further north.
Suggested hostels in Peru
When it comes to hostels or other low-cost accommodation with good value or good atmosphere, you’ll find that Peru is an embarrassment of riches. Finding good backpacker or budget style accommodation is easy, and there are many options available particularly anywhere in the more frequented south. Below are some suggested hostels and low-budget places to stay:
|1900 Backpackers Hostel||Lima (center)||Hostel based in a renovated colonial era building. Bar with pool and fussball tables make meeting people easy. Located in the busy historic center.|
|Barranco’s Backpackers Inn||Lima (coast)||Small and homely family-run hostel in the fun Barranco area on the coast (also not far from Miraflores). Location not as central, but a much more relaxed place to stay in Lima.|
|Friendly AQP Hostel||Arequipa||Great family-run hostel; basically feels like you’re living in a regular house with other travelers. Very central, near the main plaza.|
|Hospedaje Turistico Recoleta||Cusco||Cusco is known for having its share of party hostels (Wild Rover, etc.), but this is a more relaxed option with a friendly atmosphere.|
|Banana’s Adventure||Huacachina||Both private rooms and dorms in this high-rated hostel at desert oasis Huacachina.|
|Iguana Hostel Puno||Puno||Hostels in Puno seemed more basic than elsewhere (as it’s more of a transit town), but this is one of the highly rated ones.|
Places to visit in Peru
I think these are some of the best places to visit and top things to do in Peru:
Go sandboarding and buggy-riding in Huacuacina
Huacuacina is an odd little oasis in the deserts near Ica that is a very popular base for the backpacker crowd . Enjoy the laidback atmosphere, or get your adrenaline flowing by sandboarding down the dunes or taking a ride in one of the dune buggies. The buggy ride is a ton of fun and feels almost like a rollercoaster. Get one at sundown and you will feel like you are in Star Wars’ Tatooine.
Explore the Amazon rainforest
Did you know that Peru has the second largest amount of Amazon Rainforest after Brazil? The Peruvian Amazon covers 60% of the country and is home to incredible biodiversity. Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado are popular places for reaching the Amazon; both are best flown into as road connections do not exist.
Go wild water rafting near Arequipa
The Chili River near Arequipa is perfect for rafting and quite a few rafting agencies operate from the city. The rapids here are up to class 4, which—if you don’t know the classification system—basically means “crazy fast and just one level below the extreme and potentially dangerous professional level 5”. It’s a blast (and yes, it’s safe). I have wanted to go rafting again after first trying it here, but have so far only found ho-hum class 2 rapids in other backpacker destinations, so my advice is take your chance and do it here.
Take a free tour of Arequipa’s historical centre
Snow-covered mountains surround Arequipa
This is one of the better free city tours I have done in South America, and you can find it by inquiring at the tourist information office on the main square in Arequipa. You will get some genuinely interesting background on both Peru and Arequipa’s histories, and will give you real reason to appreciate some of the unique architecture around.
See giant condors up close at Colca Canyon
Condors are HUGE. They have a wingspan of up to 3 meters and can get 80 years old. Seeing Andean condors in real life will definitely leave an impression. There is a spot at the top of Colca Canyon near Arequipa where they can be easily observed. You can go there just to see the condors, but even better is to see them as part of a 2 or 3 day organized trek into the canyon. If you do any other trek besides the Inca Trail make sure it’s the Colca Calyon trek, as it’s really beautiful (if a little strenuous climb on the way up).
Visit the highest lake in the world
Lake Titicaca is, by some measures, the highest lake in the world. It is home to some reed floating villages, though these have become a bit of a tourist trap. Don’t think you’ll be like some kind of explorer establishing First Contact with its inhabitants; it’s going to hugely commercialized with people putting on ‘shows’ for the tourists. A popular thing for backpackers to do in this area is to spend a night in a homestay, which I didn’t do but heard some good things about.
Just 15 minutes across the border in Bolivia is the town of Copacabana which has several nearby islands that are well worth visiting, including Isla de la Luna.
Learn how pisco is made
This is how pisco is carried and stored
Take a tour at a vineyard where Pisco is produced, the grape brandy that’s the primary ingredient for Peru’s ‘Pisco Sour’ cocktail. These tours by the their very nature are a little cheesy, but interesting nonetheless. And, of course, they include some free pisco tasting. The best place to do this is, not surprisingly, around the city of Pisco.
Stay in Cusco for a while
Cusco was once the capital of the Inca empire, and so it is a city of much historical and cultural significance. At 3,400m above sea level it is a fairly cold and barren place: bring a sweater and don’t expect to see much green. Cusco also happens to be the prime party hotspot for backpackers, with many infamous hostel chains (like Loki) offering a chance to let loose. The nearby Sacred Valley is a great area for horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking.
Observe some alpacas
I don’t know what it is about these animals that makes them so hilarious, but they are. Endless entertainment.
Fly over the mysterious Nazca Lines
The peculiar Nazca Lines are a series of ancient geoglyphs that range from wildlife to geometric designs, and no one seems to know why or how they were created. Flights over the Nazca lines leave every day and can be booked from most nearby cities (e.g. Lima, Ica, Arequipa)
Enjoy the amazing cuisine (and also, guinea pig)
Some delicious ceviche
In Peru people just eat fried chicken with potatoes, right? Wrong. Peru is home to some incredible food. Food and travel guru Anthony Bourdain has listed Peruvian food as one of the most underrrated around the world, along with Burmese food, and I have to completely agree on both counts.
Peruvian dishes I can heartily recommend include:
- Lomo saltado (a type of stir fry)
- Ceviche (marinated raw fish)
- Rocoto relleno (minced meat inside a pepper, popular in Arequipa)
- Alpaca (tastes like beef but a little fattier)
For a fun experience, try the guinea pig (yes, people do actually eat this in Peru). It really just tastes like chicken and there is little meat on the bone, but it’s something interesting to try for sure.
Finally, Peru is home to some of the best chocolate in the world. Go on a cacao plantation tour, or take a chocolate making workshop at Chaqchao Organic Chocolates in Arequipa.
And more places to visit…
- Huaraz in the north is a great base for hiking. I have not been personally, though the mountains are meant to be spectacular here. I met someone who lived around Huaraz for several months on a volunteering trip and who could not stop raving about the treks there.
- Witness the wildlife of the Ballestas Islands, often described as the Galapagos Islands of Peru. Accessible from Paracas (near Pisco) the islands are home to many rare birds, including pelicans, penguins, cormorants, Peruvian boobies, and Inca terns.
- Peru is not an obvious destination for beaches (since much of the coastline is not so suitable) though you can find some good ones in the north, for example near Trujillo, while Mancora is a popular surfing destination. Other countries in South America arguably have better beaches however (think Brazil or Colombia).
Tips for visiting Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is something you’ll want to get right. Given the right circumstances, it can be mind-numbingly magical. Given the wrong circumstances, and you will find yourself sharing the site with a bazillion other people and with the entire place losing much of its mystique.
- Get there early. And by early I mean really early. Either go on a trek that takes you to Machu Picchu before sunrise, or if you are not trekking take the first bus up from Aguas Calientes (the town nearest to Machu Picchu) and get there ready for sunrise. Around 5 A.M. you will have the place seemingly to yourself. The sun rising over the mountains with the base of Machu Picchu still draped in the fog of dawn may just leave you breathless.
- Book your tickets well in advance. Trekking to Machu Picchu is extremely popular and you need to book these treks at least 2 months prior as they fill up fast. If you are taking the tourist train from Cusco up to Aguas Calientes, know that train tickets often sell out weeks in advance too—if you missed your chance, a backup option is to take the bus to Ollantaytambo and take the train from there. Tickets to the archeological site itself (if you want to visit independently rather than with a trekking group) are capped at a certain number each day, though they don’t require purchasing quite as far ahead. You can usually still get tickets a few day in advance.
- There’s more than just one trek. A key thing to understand about the so-called “Inca Trail” is that this is just what tour agencies began to call it at one point; there isn’t some single historical trail the Incas used that somehow carries more symbolic significance than any other trails. The Inca Trail is beautiful but also very busy these days. You’ll be encountering a lot of other groups, but if you want a quieter hike there are quite a few alternatives, including the Lares Route or the Chaski trail.
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Budgeting & Practical Tips
- Budget around $30 a day as your average backpacker budget (e.g. when staying in dorm rooms and eating locally). At least $40/day if you want a bit more comfort. Your biggest expense will probably be hiking up to Machu Picchu if that’s part of your itinerary, as these multi-day treks will set you back some hundreds of dollars. Lima and Cuzco are the most expensive destinations in Peru.
- Lunch is the biggest meal of the day for locals. If you want to keep your costs down, you can find some very inexpensive set meals at lunch.
- It really helps to know Spanish as outside of tour guides knowledge of English is uncommon. Learn at least a few basics. Read some tips on how to learn Spanish easily.
- Bus travel is very comfortable. Cruz del Sur is a popular bus company providing luxurious seats, movies/entertainment, and on-board meals, but there are dozens of others.
- Be on your guard for scams or theft. I didn’t have any problems with this personally, but Peru is increasingly getting a bad reputation for this (not unlike Vietnam‘s reputation in South-East Asia). One particular point to be aware of: in my two years of travelling I never heard of people having their bags stolen wholesale, except for in Peru where I heard four first-hand accounts of such a thing happening. That could have been a statistical fluke, but if I’m also counting the number of travel bloggers who have written about bag theft in Peru, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Be sure to look after your belongings more closely in Peru. Further reading: 5 ways to keep your belongings safe.
- Peruvian ATMs dispense both local currency (nuevos soles) and US dollars and work with all major bank cards.
- Bring antibacterial gel. Peru is one of those countries where toilets are often not the most clean and often don’t have soap. Toilets at bus stations are particularly horrific.
- 7 Awesome Things to do in the Sacred Valley of Peru – Two Monkeys Travel
- Peru Amazon Jungle – A Visual Journey – Going Awesome Places
- Complete Guide to Choosing Your Machu Picchu Trek – A post I wrote for Rickshaw Travel comparing three of the Machi Picchu trails (the Inca Trail isn’t the only one!)
- More links as and when I come across them!
More info on Peru: check out the WikiVoyage page for some more destination info. Looking for a more comprehensive guide? You can grab the Lonely Planet guide to Peru right here, available in book form or as PDF which you can use at home or consult on your smartphone or tablet while you travel.